Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023

Approaching Indian Culture:
The Example of Swami Abhishiktananda 

My first exposure to Swami Abhishiktananda came in a course in comparative mysticism while in the master’s program at Saint John’s University in Minnesota. I had been practicing a Hindu form of meditation since childhood and during my graduate studies I was wrestling with various Hindu-Christian issues. The professor, Rabbi Mark Verman, thought that Abhishiktananda could be a good guide for me. I thus wrote two papers on him. Later, when I was pursuing doctoral studies at The Catholic University of America, Drs. William Cenker and Michael Stoeber thought that he would be an excellent dissertation topic for me.  

My first impression of Abhishiktananda was that he, as a Christian, was using the Upanishads  as a resource for thinking and contemplation, just as in the fourth century Saint Augustine had used Neoplatonic sources. My second impression, as I wrote my two papers on him, was that he was trying to harmonize an impersonal form of Hindu mysticism with theistic Christian mysticism. Later, when I began researching my doctoral dissertation, I came to see him as a man who was engaging with the culture of India. He was seeing what he, as a Christian, could adopt. 
In the first month of researching the dissertation, Abhishiktananda’s approach left me confused. As a graduate student I had thirstily read Shankara and was eager for ideas. I was wondering what Abhishiktananda had to say about him. I searched in vain through Abhishiktananda’s writings in his early years in India to find this. Instead, I came to see his way of engaging with Hinduism, at least in those early years, was quite other than reading Shankara. He was engaging with Hinduism by adopting a certain culture and living a certain lifestyle. His engagement consisted of learning to converse in Tamil, not touching his lips to a tumbler when drinking, removing his shoes before entering a home, eating vegetarian, wearing Indian clothing, and sleeping on the ground (Stuart 1989, 26–27).
Approaching Abhishiktananda in the first month of researching my dissertation, I was one of the “intellectuals” he complained of who “ask India for ideas.” Instead of looking for ideas, he wrote, those intellectuals should follow India’s call to penetrate “the most intimate level of our being,” beyond thought and ideas (1974, 7). Initially disappointed and wondering how I would approach my dissertation topic, I soon realized that Abhishiktananda’s approach was highly effective and brought him to a deep experience of the Hindu world.
The effectiveness of Abhishiktananda’s approach became evident to me when I was reading about his first stay, in 1952, in the caves near the city of Tiruvannamalai. These caves, which have long served as hermitages, lie on the holy mountain, Arunachala. Abhishiktananda had made three prior trips to the city in conjunction with his interest in Ramana Maharshi, whom he considered an exemplar of Indian renunciatory lifestyles, the type of lifestyle he was living. Abhishiktananda’s first stay in the caves was about twelve days in length.
At that time, the city, although having a long history as both a religious site and a government center, was still relatively quiet and isolated. On the mountainside, leaving behind customary human habitations, Abhishiktananda initially felt insecure. He realized that the “rocks and bushes” outside his cave “must be sheltering a good number of those creatures towards whom men normally feel very little sympathy.” Exposed to possible danger, Abhishiktananda reflected on the insecure lifestyle of the traditional Advaitic renunciate, the saṃnyāsin. Having renounced all, the saṃnyāsin should feel peace in the face of danger: “I was certainly not alarmed . . . Indeed is there anything of which the sādhu should be afraid, . . . ?” (1979, 26).
Abhishiktananda also observed complete silence during his first stay. Just as being in the wilderness affected him, so did the silence:
It is as if each day of silence was drawing you ever further and further from all familiar ways. . . . the mind is freed from those external reminders with which it is assaulted in every moment of its ordinary life. . . . It the mind gathers itself within, concentrates on the one thing necessary, and discovers in itself a clarity and transparency which otherwise is scarcely conceivable” (1979, 30).
Also, the form of the mountain, associated in local belief with Advaitic realizations, reinforced a sense of leaving everything behind and of the individual being dwarfed. Addressing the mountain in poetry he wrote,
This world which I have left once, a second time,
and once again, finally and for good, for you –
erase it from my being,
so that for ever in You, Yourself, I may remain naked, alone, wordless.
In silence you teach me silence, O Arunachala,
You who never depart from your silence (1998, 37).
I thus came to see that Abhishiktananda’s engagement with Advaita was not through an academic comparison of ideas but through living a particular lifestyle.
Abhishiktananda was silent during that first stay in the caves, but conversations were essential parts of his experiences, during both his prior and future trips to Tiruvannamalai. He came to see the city through the eyes of the people there, learning the significance it held for them. On his first visit in 1949, he met a Westerner, Ethel Merstone. He told her that he had come to see Ramana Maharshi, but was disappointed, for there did not seem to be anything particularly special or holy about him. Merstone told him the reason for his disappointment:
[Y]ou have come here with far too much "baggage." . . . You want to know, you want to understand. You are insisting that what is intended for you should necessarily come to you by the path which you have determined. Instead you should make yourself empty; simply be receptive: make your meditation one of pure expectation (1979, 8).
On the following day, following Merstone’s advice, Abhishiktananda was quite moved by Ramana and the general environment during the session for darśan.
On Abhishiktananda’s second visit, half-a-year later, he fit in better, for he was then much more familiar with Indian culture and the lifestyle of a saṃnyāsin. In fact, it was as if he were a regular at the āśram: “You can imagine how I enjoyed being able to live entirely as an Indian. . . . And everyone seemed to find it so natural. People addressed me as ‘Sāmī’; and ‘Sāmī’ is the title given by Christians to their priests and by Hindus to brahmins and sannyasis” (Stuart 1989, 35). On that second visit he had a conversation with the brāhmiṇ who explained to him that “the most central point in Srī Ramana’s teaching is the mystery of the heart. . . . deep within oneself, beyond mind and thought,” beyond “all the fleeting identifications of what one is with what one has or what one does” (1979, 13–14). On the third visit there was the brāhmiṇ who arranged for him to stay in a cave, having noted Abhishiktananda’s fascination with the caves that served as hermitages and reminded him of the early Christian desert fathers, (1979, 23).
On a later trip there was the temple priest who befriended Abhishiktananda and gained access for him to the inner courtyards and chambers of the temple, at that time off limits to non-Hindus (1979, 102–103). There was a Telegu man who, through his previous exposure to Ramana, had left atheism behind and became a regular participant in devotional singing (1979, 74). Another person, Jagdish, was once a “fashionable young man” who “had become a kind of beggar, wearing almost nothing, with matted hair and a long beard, who sat for long periods in the Temple” (1979, 77). Also, among many others he met was A. Bose, a Bengali who taught him that the lifestyle of renunciation and the practice of meditation can simply be new forms of attachment. They can be ways of avoiding identifying with the depths within oneself. Bose shared with Abhishiktananda Ramana’s instructions: “Do not meditate—Be! / do not think that you are—Be! / Don’t fuss about being—you are!” (1979, 73).
Inspired by an Example
Swami Abhishiktananda was a fantastic dissertation topic for me, helping me address my interests and establish my academic career. Apart from being a good dissertation topic, what impact did he have on me, personally? I was an intellectual, content and happy with my practice of meditation and my exercises in comparative religion and philosophy. Furthermore, these pursuits fit very well with the comfortable, upper class lifestyle with which I had been raised. The practice of meditation and the associated beliefs certainly challenged me over the years, helping me to grow, but all the same this pursuit was of a piece with a comfortable lifestyle.
I had a strong interest in Hinduism, but given my attachment to a comfortable life, I had no desire to go to India. In fact, apart from travel in my home state and neighboring areas, I had no interest at all in travel. In my mid-twenties a road trip from America’s Midwest to the East Coast and subsequently moving into a dormitory in Washington, D.C. were intimidating experiences for me. However, to keep developing my academic credentials, I knew I had to go to India. Thus, after graduate school and being settled into my current position I took my first journey. The motivation was professional.  
Although I had no personal desire to go, if I was going to travel there I was going to do it right. To me that meant being in the villages and being among the people. Thus, on my third day of my first overseas trip I began my stay in a small village in the countryside of Tamil Nadu. There I was in a world incredibly different from my own in terms of lifestyle, manners, culture, standard of living, and social relations. The only familiar reference points were Roman Catholic, and even those were quite different from what I had grown up with in America. Unsurprisingly, with no prior overseas experience, I was uncomfortable.            
I was uncomfortable, but I had the experiences of Abhishiktananda to guide me. To begin, by sheer coincidence, I was staying in a village an hour from Tiruvannamalai. In fact, it is conceivable that he had passed through the same village in which I was staying. Abhishiktananda had had positive and impactful experiences in that land, and that fact gave me a sense of trust in the people and the environment; it eased my insecure feelings. More than trust, Abhishiktananda gave an example of how to interact with the culture. Conversations were integral components of his experiences at Tiruvannamalai, and so I looked to the people, considering them as my companions and my guides to the land.
It can be wise and respectful the traveler to form relationships with the people of the land and to heed their advice. In the Tamil countryside that approach is especially appropriate, for there the people are exceptionally social, gregarious, and expressive, putting relationships at the forefront of their daily lives. Being an individualistic American and a reserved Midwesterner, that was quite a change for me! It became clear to me that with very few material possessions and preoccupations the people focus on what they have, which is each other. Also, with visits to a wide range of Indian homes over the coming years and reflecting on my experiences in the United States, I came to see clearly that the more possessions and resources people have the more they withdraw into their own, private worlds.
I began my first day in the villages feeling very uncomfortable, but just as Abhishiktananda had come to fit into the Indian context much better between his first and second trips to Tiruvannamalai, over the course of two weeks I made great strides in learning to fit into a village context. Although I felt uncomfortable at the beginning, by the end my companions and I were having a marvelous time! With the experiences and contacts I gained in those first two weeks and in the coming month of travel, what direction did I subsequently go in? Abhishiktananda criticizes the intellectuals looking to India for ideas and advises them instead to penetrate to the depth. I pursued the depths, but, perhaps unexpectedly, it was not Advaitic depths that I pursued, at least not in a straightforward way. Given that I was a professor at an institution dedicated to undergraduate teaching the most appropriate direction for me was designing a short-term study abroad course.
The four-week course, to which I dedicated a decade of my life, began in Kochin and ended in Chennai. It focused on the Hindu, Muslim, and Syrian Christian religions. Rather than passing through the land as strangers, as tourists generally do and students often do, I relied on contacts at each site to host the students and guide them. In lectures and orientation sessions I stressed manners and etiquette, and how to feel comfortable in environments different from one’s customary ones. Given the program’s special focus on the people, the heart of the course was a weeklong stay in village homes during the Pongal harvest festival, a rich time of family and celebration in Tamil Nadu.
Just as I learned valuable lessons on my first and subsequent stays in the villages, so did the students. One wrote, “Many people I saw and encountered didn’t have much food or clothing, their house was so small, and some people literally had nothing and were begging to get their needs met. . . . Because they don’t have a lot of materialistic things their sense of community and family are heightened to a level almost incomprehensible to a Westerner. Everybody looks out for one another.” After returning to America this student also wrote, “My friends and family don’t understand my non-desire to be around my electronics, my desire not to waste anything, and my gratitude for the smallest things in life” (Ulrich 2021, 158).[1]
Near the end of the journey, after finishing the homestay experience, the students would spend several days at Tiruvannamalai. Through exposure to the Sri Ramanashram, the temple, and the mountain, and through lectures I hoped to make students aware of the religious significance of the city. However, the highly experienced tour guide who led us through Tamil Nadu gently advised me that this would not work. Indeed, although the students valued the days spent there they appreciated it mainly as a place of relaxation and sightseeing near the end of a taxing journey. All the same, though the students exhibited minimal interest in Advaita, the experiences they had over the four weeks led them to question their understandings of themselves, the world, and religion. It led them into depths of which Abhishiktananda would have approved.
Abhishiktananda, Swami. 1998. Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948–1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom H. Le Saux). Ed. Raimon Panikkar. Trans. David Fleming and James Stuart. Delhi: ISPCK.
 _____. 1974. Guru and Disciple. Trans. Heather Sandeman. London: SPCK.
 _____. 1979. The Secret of Arunāchala: A Christian Hermit on Shiva’s Holy Mountain. Delhi: ISPCK
Stuart, James. 1989. Swāmī Abhishiktānanda: His Life Told through his Letters. Delhi: ISPCK.
 Ulrich, Edward. 2021. “India and the West in Encounter: Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on Indian Culture.” In Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo, ed. Ananta Kumar Giri, 144–59. Oxford: Routledge.
 _____. “Teaching Hinduism through a Rural Homestay in South India.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 30, no. 1 (2018): 56–69.
[1]For a fuller account of the experiences of the students see Ulrich (2018, 56–69).
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